Ninety Percent Obscurity
Is faithful invisibility the antidote to church decline?

Nobody knows better than New England Baptists how ministry is changing in America. And that shouldn't surprise us. They've been at least a generation ahead of the rest of us for a couple hundred years. They practically invented evangelicalism in the 1740s. That was nearly a century before my home state (Arkansas) was admitted to the union. And while many of us west of the Mississippi fear the creeping influence of secularism, our New Englander brethren minister in the least religious states in America.

Fortunately, they are also a generation ahead of us in recovering the critical ministry value of faithfulness.

Earlier this year, I spent a long weekend with a group of Baptists from Vermont and New Hampshire. Before an evening session, one pastor reflected on the fact that the Bible only records three years of Jesus' life and ministry. If Jesus died at 33, then we only know about ten percent of his life. Or, as this pastor put it, that means Jesus' life and ministry was "ninety percent obscurity."

That's a feeling with which he and his fellow shepherds could relate. The Baptists were once the leading spiritual lights in New England. Following the Great Awakening, Baptist churches grew in massive numbers. Within about sixty years of the revival, Baptists grew from just dozens to nearly twenty-five thousand in New England. Those swelling ranks had influence beyond the church world. They carried with them considerable cultural clout. The Baptists did a lot to see the first amendment added to our constitution, for example, to ensure religious liberty for dissenters like themselves. They were a thriving, culturally relevant force.

But now the region's churches are shrinking. Several of the pastors present that weekend hold services in church buildings erected in the 1740s which, on the one hand, testifies to the longevity of the movement. On the other, it speaks to a certain stagnation, a leveling off of 200 years of growth. Many pastors are bi-vocational, because their membership can't support a full-time minister. And instead of being a shaping influence in the broader culture, the churches are fighting to prove their relevance in their profoundly secular environment. They labor in obscurity.

At the risk of sounding like a forecaster of doom, their story is our national story. It's how we often tell our story, anyway. There were days when people went to church—most people, maybe. When the church was a cultural force for change for the better. Times have changed and are changing. If we want to know what awaits us in a generation, we need only look at New England.

April 11, 2013

Displaying 1–10 of 10 comments

Janey

April 18, 2013  8:11pm

Data show high-income married people attend church, but low- and middle-income earners and singles are dropping out. A single Christian friend said to me one day, "I cannot go to your church. I won't fit in. You attend the church for those who've 'made it' in life." I was startled. He made it sound like a country club, not a church. And after another friend said the same thing, my eyes opened. They both wanted to attend a Bible preaching church but felt unwelcome. And that's what's so ironic. Jesus and indeed all the New Testament writers make it clear that if you cater to the rich, you're missing the Gospel. That's what's happening. It's clear in the data.

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Janey

April 18, 2013  5:14pm

TJ, Please read my entire post (the one dated April 14). I'm not talking about liberalism. - Janey

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TJ

April 18, 2013  3:17pm

"White churches need to rework their message. They are blind to this problem and they should do focus groups and find out why Christians in their community who don't meet the gold standard of white Christianity aren't attending. " White churches did that. The result was the mainstream liberal denominations that are dieing. Those are the source of decline. I used to be a pastor in New England (now I'm across the water on Long Island) and I can tell you the reason for decline in New England is the abandonment of the Gospel and the scripture by the church. The church made itself irrelevant by reworking their message. Of course I completely agree that churches in general do a very poor job of reaching across racial, socio-economic and even generational lines. That's certainly a problem to be addressed, but that is not the root cause of church decline. The root cause of church decline is the secularization of the church itself; it's the abandonment of the Gospel for other, supposedly better things.

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Janey

April 18, 2013  5:51am

Pastor Paul, Thank you for your comments. I'm looking forward to your positive article on church decline! ,-) I find that many of my non-Christian friends in the business world actually do have faith and would like to be part of the Christian community. But they don't feel welcome. Here are the causes for church decline that grieve me the most… – Demagoguery - Church leadership that is harsh, judgmental and demanding of regular "proofs" that you are committed (similar to the Jehovah's Witnesses). Their swagger and self-righteous arrogance hurts the congregants who stay, and runs off others who really do love the Lord. Evidence of this is the huge number of "survivor" websites and "pastor watch" sites run by people whose lives have been affected by authoritarianism. A good example of these is smgsurvivors.com and thewartburgwatch.com. But there are dozens of others. – Cold-heartedness - People who come to the church with needs and their needs are belittled. I'm well acquainted with a mega-church that openly judged two disabled single moms who had to ask for financial help. Their crime? To ask for money more than once. Divorce is another problem. Many young pastors, especially those whose lives have never been touched by divorce, are insensitive to those who've lost their marriages and just assume that the person just "didn't value marriage." They chase away a good portion of the 38% of committed Christians who do divorce. – Fake - There's an epidemic of spouse abuse and child sexual abuse in Christian homes including pastor's homes, and the church needs to wake up and stop sweeping it under the carpet. The church needs to find solutions, not just pretend everything is okay. When church leadership acts as if an abuser can just "snap out of it," they prove that they are ill-equipped, incompetent, and afraid of getting their hands dirty. The lack of transparency about problems and finances is staggering. Again, there are dozens of survivor blogs that offer practical help and healing for abused Christians, victims of sexual abuse, and victims of financial abuse. –Janey

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Moe Bergeron

April 17, 2013  1:26pm

I for one am quite excited about the state of the church in New England. Up until the 1960's the evangelical church in New England was in sore decline. Since then by God's grace we as evangelicals have seen tremendous growth and, Lord willing, the potential for further growth looks very promising. We have to stop counting dead churches and their declining numbers and start praising God for the dead who've been raised to life since the late 1960's to the present. One day folks are going to look back at this period as a time of warm revival.

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Joey Brummett

April 17, 2013  10:42am

It is refreshing to read a thoughtful article about faithfulness - especially in the growth and success mode that many churches desire for their congregations - how beautiful to be reminded of Jesus' words - "you have been faithful over a few things...." The standard of Jesus will always be faithfulness in ministry done with love. We leave the results with God.

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Joey Brummett

April 17, 2013  10:41am

It is refreshing to read a thoughtful article about faithfulness - especially in the growth and success mode that many churches desire for their congregations - how beautiful to be reminded of Jesus' words - "you have been faithful over a few things...." The standard of Jesus will always be faithfulness in ministry done with love. We leave the results with God.

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Paul Pastor

April 16, 2013  3:41pm

Janey - your comment is spot on. The connection between racism and classism and church decline is a tremendous blind spot for us. (Though personally, I don't think that "church decline" as it's typically described is even something to wring our hands over...but that's another article.) "White churches need to rework their message. They are blind to this problem and they should do focus groups and find out why Christians in their community who don't meet the gold standard of white Christianity aren't attending. " Ouch. And amen.

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Janey

April 14, 2013  7:50am

Hi Pastor Paul and Url, Whenever I see articles like this, bemoaning church decline and secularism, I want to ring alarm bells. According to Philip Jenkins, one of the top religion demographers, we are going to have more Christians in the US (not fewer Christians) over the next 35 years. So what's the problem with these New England churches? Why are they declining? I wonder if these church leaders are really saying, "Sure, there are plenty of people in our community who identify as Christian, but not many people who fit our target profile." The white church is the one that's declining. Not the Black or Hispanic church, according to W. Bradford Wilcox's study (U Virginia and Johns Hopkins), "No Money, No Honey, No Church." Wilcox makes the case that white church attendance is tied to "respectability." In other words, the white church is the place where married, middle- and upper-class whites go when they want to "display to fellow congregants…their sense of responsibility and their commitment to" the traditional family. As you guys at "Out of Ur" probably know, church attendance is stable among the upper-class whites, but declining in lower- and middle-income and unmarried whites. What would Jesus say? How about the Book of James? In the Black church the emphasis is not on having arrived at a certain status, but on "shared struggle and perseverance," which is something young working class whites really need – because only 20% of white evangelicals get a 4-year college degree. In the Hispanic church the emphasis is on "solidarity and practical support." Wilcox predicts that the decline will continue to white churches, but not for Black or Hispanic churches. So, here's the challenge: White churches need to rework their message. They are blind to this problem and they should do focus groups and find out why Christians in their community who don't meet the gold standard of white Christianity aren't attending.

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the Old Adam

April 11, 2013  10:01am

Jesus said :"When the Son of man returns to earth with His holy angels, will there be faith?" That is a question. 'Will there even be any (faith) left?' There'll be plenty of 'self-focused religion'. There was lots of that even before Jesus and there's plenty now. But faith? That's another matter entirely.

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